This time of year, there are a few things you can count on hearing over and over again: including songs from the perennial TV favorite, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.
Rudolph is one of the most enduring holiday characters.
Rudolph began life as the subject of a giveaway coloring book created by the Montgomery Ward department store in 1939. The story, set to music, had become a well known song by the 1960s, when it made the jump to TV special. It took the story, added more music and a cast of whimsical characters — like Rudolph’s friend, Hermey the misfit Elf, who wants to become a dentist.
Many of the characters, except for Burl Ives’ Sam the Snowman, were played by Canadian voice actors. The character voices and much of the music for the holiday classic were produced at RCA’s recording studios in Canada.
Paul Soles hosted a news program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at the time. He’s now one of the few surviving members of the cast. He played Hermey and can still demonstrate how he transformed his voice.
Paul Soles, who played Hermey the misfit elf.
“An elf is small right?” Soles said. “And this is a children’s show, so you do a voice that you think is childlike and is small. And you know that children have these higher voices because larynxes aren’t very big, so they can’t have a deep voice.”
Rudolph’s producers, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, had come to Canada for the available vocal talent and lower costs. The two would go on to create many holiday specials and TV series including the 1980s-era Thundercats.
Bill Giles, RCA’s sound engineer in Toronto, recalls the Rudolph sessions felt special.
“It was just like a family doing the recording sessions,” he said. “Everybody put their heart and soul in it. The actors would work overtime and I worked overtime and stuff like that just for the joy of working with it.”
The stop-motion animation was set to the soundtrack at a studio in Japan, which also completed several of the commercial breaks for General Electric, the production’s sponsor.
Giles remembers watching the television broadcast with his children, then age seven and five, when it aired in 1964.
“They were excited. They didn’t take their eyes off the TV.”
They can still watch the special on television this year, its 51st on the air. Rick Goldschmidt is the go-to historian of Rankin/Bass Productions.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he said, “became such a big success those first couple of years that the ratings just kept growing and it never stopped airing.”
Its first of two showings last year still drew an audience of 10 million people. For most of the cast and crew, it’s the most famous thing they ever worked on, though the actors never earned any royalties beyond what they were paid for those recording sessions.
Rudolph and family have found a new home on stage. (Character Arts)
Today the show also has commercial life on stage. A musical version began touring the United States and Canada last year that sticks closely to the TV script.
So while the making of Rudolph may in fact be history, the story of the red-nosed reindeer is still lighting the way for holiday entrepreneurs.
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